MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley thought her team was masking some defensive deficiencies with a potent offense. Now, she's got the game film to back that up after the 10th-ranked Gamecocks lost 74-66 to No. 14 North Carolina on Wednesday night.
Staley worried earlier this week that her talented offensive players had relied on their scoring skills to offset problems at stopping opponents in critical situations. That was certainly the case in South Carolina's first loss this season as the Gamecocks struggled to contain the Tar Heels potent post pair of Stephanie Muvanga and Xylina McDaniel, who combined for 34 points and 19 rebounds. The two shot better than 50 percent, most of their baskets from close in.
"It's a good learning film for our young basketball team," Staley said. "We'll take some good and some bad things from this."
The Gamecocks (9-1) have little choice but to turn the page and move on. They have games Friday and Sunday and Staley understands any hangover from this one could costs South Carolina in those contests.
"This team is a close-knit group. Of course, they're disappointed that they didn't win this game," Staley said. "But we've got a lot of fight left in us."
The Gamecocks might have to fight on without starting point guard Khadijah Sessions, who came out of the locker room on crutches with an ankle injury. Staley said the sophomore will have an MRI when the team returns to campus.
What would she do if Sessions couldn't play? "Pray," she said with a smile.
North Carolina, which defeated New Orleans 124-41 here Monday night, improved to 26-5 all-time in games playing along South Carolina's famed beach resort since first coming here under coach Sylvia Hatchell in the 1994-95 season.
The Tar Heels (10-2) showed a little of everything that's made them one of the country's winningest programs during Hatchell's 28 seasons in charge.
Mavunga had her seventh double-double this season with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Mavunga helped North Carolina build a 13-point lead midway through the second half while Diamond DeShields and McDaniel helped fend off the Gamecocks, who cut the margin to 55-53 with nine minutes to go.
DeShields, the daughter of ex-major leaguer Delino DeShields, scored 17 points while McDaniel, the daughter of former NBA standout Xavier McDaniel, added 14 points and seven rebounds.
Mavunga said teammate Danielle Butts told the Tar Heels at the half that despite their 39-27 edge at the break that the Gamecocks (9-1) would tighten things up.
"She told up we've got to hold our heads up and keep pushing through everything," Mavunga said.
North Carolina did that to perfection after South Carolina's charge, which cut the game to 2 points on Aleighsa Welch's foul shots with 9:21 to go.
That's when McDaniel drove for a layup and Mavunga followed with a basket to extend the Tar Heels lead to 59-53. Mavunga and McDaniel combined for 12 straight points down the stretch to fend off South Carolina.
"They're undefeated, they're not used to losing so they're going to keep coming at us," Mavunga said. "So we just had to stay together and keep doing what it is we do, play Carolina basketball."
South Carolina had hoped to match its best start in Staley's six seasons with a victory. Instead, Staley says she's got plenty of things to teach her young team — the Gamecocks start three freshmen — as they finish off non-conference play the next two weeks.
"This was one you want to get, but it's not the tell-all of the season," Staley said.
Welch led the Gamecocks with a career-high 23 points.
Tiffany Mitchell had 18 points and Elem Ibiam had 14 for the Gamecocks, who were trying to match their best start ever under coach Dawn Staley at 10-0.
South Carolina had largely cruised to its undefeated run coming in with a strong offensive showing. The Gamecocks had averaged just under 80 points a game — their closest score so far was a 70-50 victory over Southern Cal last month.
But Staley said her team hadn't really been tested defensively and her fears were borne out in the opening half as the Tar Heels frequently beat South Carolina down court for easy buckets or found open players on the wing for uncontested jumpers.
South Carolina's coaches and staff joined their North Carolina counterparts in wearing orange ribbons to support Hatchell's fight against the leukemia.
"She's a strong woman and a legendary coach that's been stricken by this," Staley said. "But if I'm cancer, I wouldn't want to mess with coach Hatchell."